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Bloomington, Normal Push Cannabis Sales Discussions Toward Zoning

Bloomington cannabis task force
Eric Stock
Members of the Bloomington cannabis task force presented their findings to the city council on Monday.

Bloomington City Council members on Monday said the city should consider how it might regulate marijuana dispensaries through zoning as the council decides whether it will allow such businesses when recreational cannabis sales become legal in January.

City Manager Tim Gleason plans to present the council with such a proposal next Monday to start the zoning process after taking an informal vote during Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting. The Normal Town Council made a similar move Monday night.

Gleason said Bloomington would refer the matter to its planning commission to consider how close a dispensary could locate next to a school, daycare or church; whether to allow on-site consumption; and other considerations.

"We did as much as we could for the three weeks that we had."

The planning commission would also hold a public hearing, though no date has been set.

Council member Scott Black likened the regulation of cannabis to alcohol, suggesting nearby residents have a say in where such a business can locate.

“Frankly if a neighborhood doesn’t care that an establishment ends up in their area, then why should I?” Black asked, adding the city should also seek input from District 87, Unit 5, Illinois Wesleyan University and other stakeholders before voting on any specific guidelines.

Council member Kim Bray said the recommendations which came from the city’s cannabis task force advocating for a marijuana dispensary were “predictable” since no school administrators or attorneys were named to the panel.

The council approved the 10 members of the group nominated by Mayor Tari Renner.

The task force presented its final report to the council Monday, indicating seven of the 10 members favor cannabis sales in Bloomington.

Task force chair Linda Foster said the group’s scope was limited due to time constraints. The task force met three times over three weeks, leaving aside issues including zoning, taxation and on-premise use.

“We did the studies, we did the research,” Foster said. “We did as much as we could for the three weeks that we had.”

The group said allowing a marijuana dispensary would generate tax revenue (up to 5.5% including a portion of the state’s sales tax) that could support any costs associated with legalization and enable Bloomington businesses to gain a competitive advantage, but acknowledges pushing through new guidelines by the end of the year would limit the city’s ability to adjust to pitfalls that it and other cities could encounter in allowing expanded pot sales.

Council member Joni Painter cited instances in Colorado where children have suffered psychotic experiences after consuming cannabis-infused edibles.

“Everybody says no parent in their right mind would give their kids edibles, but there are parents who aren’t in their right mind," Painter said. “They leave loaded guns laying around the house too.”

Assistant city attorney George Boyle said the city can’t enact stiffer rules than the state. The Illinois law sets the minimum age for marijuana sales at 21 and requires all cannabis packaging to be child resistant.

Gleason said he would like the planning commission to deliver final recommendations to the council for a vote in December.

Bleichner speaks to council
Credit Joe Deacon / WGLT
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner addresses the council Monday night.

The city would be eligible to get a maximum of two dispensaries in the initial round of licensing, though parts of the city would get preferential treatment by the state because they were "disproportionately affected" by the war on drugs. 

Normal Town Council Moves On Cannabis

Meanwhile in Normal, Town Council member Stan Nord cast the lone dissenting vote Monday on a motion to initiate the zoning amendment process aimed at establishing regulations for legal cannabis facilities.

“I’m more in favor of waiting and seeing what happens, and then making a decision later,” Nord said. “Because once we take that genie out of the bottle, we can't put her back in.”

City manager Pam Reece explained this step was necessary to initiate the “public engagement process.” She said a draft zoning amendment would be put on the planning commission's agenda for Nov. 7. The commission would then conduct a public hearing and discussion before returning a recommendation to the council, no sooner than December.

Hours before Monday's meetings, former Normal Town Council member Jeff Fritzen urged the councils in Bloomington and Normal to opt out of allowing recreational marijuana dispensaries.

Fritzen, who served 32 years on Normal’s council before retiring earlier this year, said expanding access to marijuana would undermine efforts substance abuse prevention advocates have been making keep cannabis out of young people's hands.

“What kind of statement do we make if we welcome this new industry into our community?” Fritzen asked. “On one hand we are trying to deter and on the other hand we are saying ‘Come on in, you are welcome here.’”

He said the high concentration of young adults in Bloomington-Normal as a college town make is particularly susceptible to marijuana abuse.

“The presence of a dispensary would lead possibly to increased use,” Fritzen said. “Most of the news and media talk has been about what kind of restrictions you could put on it and what’s legal and what isn’t legal as opposed to should we really be doing this. Who has asked that question? Who has answered that question? I don’t think anybody really has."

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
Joe Deacon is a reporter at WCBU.
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